Democrats in charge as Colorado Legislature convenes

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DENVER | Colorado legislators convened their new session Friday, with Democrats firmly in control of the House and Senate for the first time since 2014.

To a standing ovation, Pueblo Democratic Sen. Leroy Garcia received the Senate president’s gavel from the outgoing leader, Republican Kevin Grantham of Canon City.

FILE – In this Nov. 27, 2018 photo, clouds build over the state Capitol in downtown Denver. Colorado lawmakers convene their 2019 session with Democrats in control of both chambers and Democrat Jared Polis set to take control of the governor’s office on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Boulder Democratic Rep. KC Becker took over as majority leader in the House, replacing Denver Democrat Crisanta Duran.

The majority party is eager to work with fellow Democrat Jared Polis, who was elected the nation’s first openly gay governor amid a statewide blue wave that punished Republicans and President Donald Trump.

There are limits, however, to how much Democrats can do with their power in the state.

Constitutional controls on raising taxes and spending could curb their ambitions to bolster education funding, bring down health insurance costs and fix aging roads.

In November, voters resoundingly rejected Democrat-backed initiatives to raise taxes for education and transportation. They also rejected an initiative to curb hydraulic fracturing.

Republicans cite those initiative votes as a warning that Democrats should not go too far. Republicans will act as “the conscience of the Legislature” and fight legislation that would raise the cost of living for families, said GOP Sen. John Cooke, the new assistant minority leader.

Cooke pointed out that more than 60 percent of bills introduced last year passed with bipartisan support and expressed hope that the collaborative approach will continue. He made his remarks at a business forum Thursday featuring the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Competitive Council and Denver Business Journal.

Senate minority leader Chris Holbert acknowledged that Democrats can pass what they want as they hold a 19-16 advantage in the Senate and a 41-24 edge in the House.

Here are the top issues for the four-month session:

ENERGY

Becker has suggested revamping the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize health, safety, noise, odor, traffic and other concerns in regulating the industry.

She says government should adopt new air and water quality standards designed to protect Colorado’s multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry and give more regulatory input to municipalities.

Polis wants the state to use 100 percent clean energy by 2040. He previously supported efforts to limit fracking, though he opposed last year’s ballot initiative.

Cooke comes from Weld County, a top energy producer, and said the regulatory system fine-tuned by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration should stand.

“Denver and Boulder should not be dictating to Weld County on whether we should produce oil and gas,” he said.

EDUCATION

Democrats plan to introduce legislation to fund full-day kindergarten, a priority of Polis, a tech and education entrepreneur who insists early education is the foundation of a strong economy.

Lawmakers also hope to allocate more general fund resources to public and higher education but note that Medicaid expansion, roads, prisons and other priorities also demand pieces of a limited budget pie.

The Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights requires voter approval of any tax hike, and state refunds in years of excessive revenue. By law, legislators must deliver a balanced budget each year.

HEALTH CARE

This is a top Polis priority. Democrats say they’re working on plans to improve expanded Medicaid, which already covers one in four Coloradans.

A realignment of regional insurance markets and the creation of a state reinsurance program might alleviate sky-high premiums in 14 rural counties that now have only one insurer under the Affordable Care Act.

Polis ultimately wants to achieve universal health care. Funding to treat opioid addiction and create a state-run paid family leave program — the latter opposed by business owners and Republicans — will be central themes during the session.

TRANSPORTATION

The bill for repairing Colorado highways and bridges is $9 billion and growing. But voters have rejected two proposals — one to issue bonds, the other to raise taxes — aimed at tackling the problem.

Republicans want to build on a bipartisan effort that produced a law last year that could generate $2.8 billion through bonding and direct spending. The measure will go before voters in November. If it fails, a 2017 law kicks in authorizing $1.9 billion in bonding.

Democrats eventually intend to ask voters again for more money.

GUN CONTROL

Senate Republicans rejected legislation last year designed to remove guns from those who pose a threat to themselves or others. Expect a similar measure to become law this year.

WORKPLACE HARASSMENT

Legislators will consider a workplace harassment policy after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced in 2017 against five lawmakers — one of whom was expelled.